THE BLOG
04/06/2012 10:38 EDT | Updated 06/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Facing Death by Tending It

Most of us avoid being to close to death whenever possible. We shun its shadowy appearance and hovering smell. Yet there are those who specialize in death, neither ignoring it nor shrouding it in protective symbolism. My friend participates in this process that he finds neither daunting or eerie, and, in fact, has taught him "the raw and real meaning of humility."

Three seconds.

Since my father's death, I have often wondered about a very condensed period of time -- the second before one dies, the exact second one does die, and the second immediately following death. If I could slow those ticks on the clock down and watch body and soul through multi-dimensional goggles, what would I see? I suspect that within that tiny space of movement I might see the face of truth.

Death. Most of us avoid being to close to it whenever possible. We shun its shadowy appearance and hovering smell. Yet there are those who specialize in death, neither ignoring it nor shrouding it in protective symbolism. These people are members of the chevrah kadisha, men and women whose chosen mitzvah -- deed -- is to prepare a body according to Judaic laws prior to burial.

I have a close friend who has taken calls morning, noon or night over the last 18 years as a member of a local chevrah kadisha, summoning him to a funeral home to clean a mait [body] and prepare it to meet his/her maker.

Together with a group of his childhood friends, my friend participates in this process that he finds neither daunting or eerie, and, in fact, has taught him "the raw and real meaning of humility."

The group of four arrive at the funeral home within minutes of one another. They enter a room you and I will likely never see, where a body of a male man or child lies lifeless on a table -- sometimes a person they once knew. Men prepare men. Women prepare women.

Quietly, with great respect, they wash the mait with nine measures of water (taharah), keeping the eyes and private areas covered until necessary. Instinctively aware of each other's role, they cleanse the mait thoroughly and wrap the body in white linen tachrichim (shrouds) while reciting special prayers.

Sand from Israel is placed on the mait reflecting a kabbalistic imperative that a part of the Holy Land should lie with them. Pieces of bone china are placed over the eyes to protect them from glaring sunlight when tchiyat hametim (the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead after the coming of the Messiah) occurs; and wishbone-shaped twigs are placed in both hands to help the person stand up when that day arrives.

The mait is placed in a coffin and wrapped in an intentionally damaged prayer shawl. The tallit is made "unkosher" so that a full and complete holy item is not buried. Outer shrouds are added, and the team asks the body for mechilah (forgiveness) for the invasive act of uncovering it.

Forty minutes have passed, and the lifelong friends depart, speaking little about their partnership in their work, considered to be a chesed shel emet -- a kindness of absolute truth -- as no personal repayment can or will be received.

My friend says there is nothing extraordinary about what he does, but humbly adds he has great respect for his partners, "for they are good people."

His wife told me, "What my husband and his friends do is an act of selfless chesed. It's the greatest thing anyone can do."

Whenever my friend arrives home after participation in taharah of a mait, he hugs his children. He does this, he says, because he is clear about the lesson: "Life is short and I know it will end one day.

"Being on the chevrah kadisha, I have come to understand there is no room for arrogance because we all leave this world the same way and I want to make the most of each day " he says.

Death. To some it is a reason to hide. To others it is the consummate equalizer and an opportunity to perform a unique and honourable mitzvah. To me it is three seconds of utter mystery -- the cloud that lays over top truth.

Three seconds.